The Utah State Senate has voted to decriminalize polygamy between consenting adults, making bigamy and polygamy an infraction rather than a felony. Fines and community service would be the extent of legal enforcement, akin to a traffic ticket. Of course, Utah has for the past several decades largely declined to arrest anyone for polygamy, unless additional charges such as underage marriage or welfare fraud could be brought. Maybe decriminalization is “better than doing nothing,” to use the words of state Sen. Daniel Thatcher?
I suggest that position is untenable. Where polygyny is involved — and the vast majority of polygamy cases are in fact cases of polygyny (the union of one man to multiple wives) — the harm has been found to be inherent in the practice. In 2011, the Supreme Court of British Columbia was asked to rule on the constitutionality of Canada’s ban on polygamy. One of the star witnesses was Professor Rose McDermott of Brown University, who has penned an entire volume called “The Evils of Polygyny” summarizing her extensive research.
McDermott finds a statistically significant relationship between the legality and prevalence of polygyny within a country, on the one hand, and what they call “an entire downstream suite of negative consequences for men, women, children and the nation-state,” on the other. Their data analysis points to a significant relationship between polygyny and poor outcomes, including higher levels of sex trafficking and higher levels of domestic violence.